Wednesday, 7 November 2018
Child Benefit Eligibility
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Breen, to the House. He is my colleague from the mid-west and I am delighted he is here.
Many people have come to my office recently who still have children in school at the age of 18. Children start school at a later age now and are usually almost five years of age before they start. This means they are also finishing at a later age. In my time people did their leaving certificate exams at 16 or 17 years of age, but now most people are 18, and in some cases 19 years of age. Parents find that all benefits, including children's allowance, are cut off at 18 years of age, yet the period around leaving certificate in secondary school is a very expensive time for them. I am calling on the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to look at extending the age limit for children in full-time education because it is something that parents and families are having difficulty with. Children have exams and exam fees, and are also involved in extra-curricular activities. It it quite an expensive time, yet parents find they cannot access any benefits or payments once they reach the age of 18 because their child is considered an adult, even though he or she is still in secondary school full-time.
I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue. It is obviously one that is raised regularly in her constituency office in Limerick. Child benefit is a payment to help families with the cost of raising children and plays an important role in helping to tackle child poverty. It does not rely on a means test or social insurance contributions. Child benefit is currently paid to around 628,835 families in respect of over 1.2 million children. Child benefit is paid monthly in respect of qualified children up to the age of 16. The payment continues to be paid in respect of children up to their 18th birthday where they are in full-time education or have a disability. Given the universality of child benefit, significant costs would be incurred in any extension of the scheme. An extension as proposed by the Senator would have very significant costs. No upper age limit is proposed, so it is possible that it could include third level as well as second level students. Even if the proposal were to be restricted to second level education alone the approximate cost could be close to €100 million. Such an extension does not allow for the benefits of adopting a more targeted approach to the use of scarce resources to tackling child poverty. The provisions whereby families on low incomes can avail of a number of provisions to social welfare schemes that support children in full-time education until the age of 22 provide a more targeted approach.The provisions whereby families on low incomes can avail of a number of social welfare schemes to support children in full-time education until the age of 22 represent a more targeted approach. These include the increase for a qualified child with primary social welfare payments, the working family payment, formerly know as the family income supplement or FIS, for low-paid employees with children, and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance for low-income families. Payments under these schemes, all of which were increased in budget 2019, provide targeted assistance which is directly linked with household income and, thereby, support low-income families with older children participating in full-time education. In addition, parents moving from social welfare into employment can avail of the back to work family dividend, which provides financial support to people moving from welfare into employment or self-employment. Qualifying parents are paid the equivalent of any increases for a qualified child being paid on a jobseeker or one-parent family payment up to a maximum of four children for the first year in employment and half that amount in the second year. Clearly, these payments offer financial assistance targeted at those most in need of assistance from the State.
While I understand where the Senator is coming from on this matter, it must be understood that limited resources are available currently. It would cost up to €100 million just to provide for post-primary school and the question arises of what age limit one sets. Does one go to third level? I understand the positive impact of education and it is important to ensure children receive as much education as possible. That is why the other means are there to assist families through the targeted approach I have outlined in respect of the increase for a qualified child, the working family payment and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance.
While I understand the additional costs involved, which would be significant, it was the case until 2010 that a child in full-time education in secondary school qualified up to the age of 19. In 2010, that was reduced to 18. Allowances have not been made for the fact that children are not starting school now until they are five years of age, which raises the age at which they finish their schooling. People must pay CAO application fees, fees for exams and fees in respect of career guidance. None of that appears to be taken into account. It is a costly experience for parents. I refer to secondary school students and not those at third level. I ask the Minister of State to tell the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection that this is about second-level students and to ask her to extend the qualification age to 19 years. It would be appreciated.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I can see where she is coming from. Education is key for the future of our workers and for the youth of today who will be the people working in the jobs of tomorrow. That is particularly so given the type of jobs we are attracting to Ireland, which are professional jobs in the IT sector and in various other areas. That is where education is required. I will take the Senator's strong message back to the Minister on the proposal for post-primary schools only. Everything will depend in this area on the State's finances, but I assure the Senator that I will bring it to the Minister.